A.14. Crisis & Decline:


In the late C16th/early C17th, the Ottomans were suffering from war exhaustion, hunger and shortage of money. The years 1586-1610 had witnessed an internal crisis which was surmounted, but the Ottoman empire which emerged at the end of it was not its old self. The population of the empire had increased considerably in the C16th so that it exceeded the area of cultivated land causing social imbalance and disorder; despite the conquest of Cyprus in 1570 and the forced settlement there of thousands of landless Anatolian peasants, the numbers of homeless were on the increase in the late C16th, and they sought service on the borders as mercenaries. The expansion of the Ottoman empire stopped around the turn of the C17th, and the thousands who had served in the armies flooded back into Anatolia, causing disturbances which posed a serious danger to the state, especially during the reign of Murad III (1574-95) who succeeded Selim II.

In 1580 a financial crisis developed due to cheap American silver flooding into the empire. The treasury needed to find new sources of revenue to meet its growing deficit, which meant a heavier annual levy on the population, and caused a profound effect on the living conditions of the Ottoman peoples. The army auxiliaries (called jelalis) were only paid during time of war, and were thus idle and poor with no campaigns to occupy them in the last years of the C16th; they came to dominate Anatolia. where they were stationed, appropriating the main sources of state revenue and robbing the people by imposing their own taxes and tribute. When the regular troops left on campaign – which they did between 1596 and 1610, when the Ottomans were engaged in wars against Austria and Persia – the countryside was given over to these bandits who threw Anatolia into complete anarchy, known as the ‘Jelali Troubles’. Peasants fled their land in panic and sought refuge in fortified cities, while the richer citizens fled to Istanbul, the Balkans or Crimea, a period of Ottoman history known as ‘the Great Flight’. The whole of Anatolia was left in ruins, with the land uncultivated, and food shortages and famine developed.

The reign of Ahmed I (1603-17) marked the beginning of serious attempts to find a cure for the troubles, while 1603 Shah Abbas was seeking to benefit from the internal confusion. Thousands of jelalis were massacred in 1610 by the Grand Vizier, Kuyuju Murad Pasha, and Ahmed drew up a new Qanun-name to replace that drawn up by Süleyman I. The young and inexperienced Sultan Osman II (1618-22) was murdered by rebels in the fourth year of his reign, and his successor Murad IV (1623-40) took forcible steps to reaffirm the central authority of the Sultan. During the reign of Ibrahim I (1640-8) and the minority of Mehmed IV (1648-87), authority was exercised by the Janissaries, but central government was finally restored by Köprülü Mehmed Pasha (Mehmed IV’s Grand Vizier from 1656-61) who was entrusted with absolute powers at a moment of crisis, when Istanbul itself lay open to attack by the Venetian fleet which was the first time that the Ottomans’ capital had been threatened in this way. Sultan Mehmed IV put complete trust in his Grand Vizier, and later in his son, Köprülü Fazil Ahmed Pasha (1661-76). It was during the time of the Köprülüs that the ‘Sublime Porte’, the official residence of the Grand Viziers, became the true centre of government. However, after 1688 Anatolia again suffered the depredations of jelali bands.

The Ottomans had by now lost their supremacy at sea, and could not even defend their own coasts and sea-routes; the coasts of the Black Sea were terrorised by Cossacks, and Maltese and Tuscan privateers were operating in the Mediterranean from their base on Crete, which the Ottomans attempted to conquer but were now no match for the Venetians. They even resorted to hiring English and Dutch ships, but the siege of Candia (Crete’s capital) dragged on for 22 years, until it finally capitulated in 1669 after a violent assault by Köprülü Fazil Ahmed Pasha. This campaign had been costly in money and casualties, and had an important role in the decline of the Ottoman empire.

The Ottomans also made further attempts at maintaining their influence in Hungary, and during the Thirty-Years War the Ottoman-protected principality of Transylvania was a Protestant fortress against the Habsburgs. They attempted to control the Ukrainian Cossacks, and made war on Poland (peace treaties in 1672 and 1676), then on the Tsar of Russia in 1678 (truce in 1681). In 1683, the Ottomans again besieged Vienna, but were defeated by a combined Austrian-German-Polish army, finally thwarting Ottoman attempts at penetrating the heart of Europe. Their old enemies joined forces against them in the ‘Holy League’, formed in 1684 under the auspices of the pope, comprising Austria, Poland and Venice, joined by Russia in 1686. A long and disastrous war ended in January 1699 with the treaty of Carlowitz, finally resolving the Hungarian question in the interests of the Habsburgs, bringing Austria to the gates of the Balkans, and allowing Russia to establish herself firmly in the Ukraine.

The Ottoman empire was now in a decline from which it would not recover. They finally accepted the superiority of the ‘Franks’, and from this point onwards saw their interests in a policy of peace. In 1703, a bureaucrat rather than a soldier, Rami Mehmed Pasha, was appointed Grand Vizier for first time.

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